I’ve often joked that I’m glad I happened to be born in a country where English is my first language, because if it weren’t, the spelling alone would have forever kept me from even trying to learn it as a second.
I mean, it makes no sense. On the other hand, a lot of (but not all) other languages have spelling conventions that do make sense. Even Irish Gaelic, which I tried to learn but gave up on because I could just not pronounce it, allegedly has very strict spelling rules.
To be fair, though — English is all over the map. Exhibit 1:
How did we wind up with this messy orthography? It mainly happened because two dudes, one in England and one the the U.S., decided to write the definitive English dictionary, but followed different rules. But it also has to do with the convoluted descent of the language itself.
Let’s take a quick trip through time — but it’s going to start about five hundred years before what you were probably (or possibly not) taught in high school.
This would be Caedmon’s Hymn, a fragment from sometime in the 7th century C.E., which would mean over 1400 years ago. Here’s the opening line: “Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard…”
Any idea what that means? Well, probably not. The translation is, “Now must we praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian…”
Perhaps the only word that jumps out as even close to anything in modern English is “Weard,” but only if you realize that English at this time capitalized nouns, and “Weard” is very close to “Ward,” who is legally not the guardian but the guarded. Think Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne’s young “ward.”
“Nu” might kind of hint at “now,” but with a very warped vowel-sound.
Let’s check out the language about four hundred years later.
Here’s the first line of Beowulf, written in the early 11th century CE, in the original: “Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon…” This translates to “How we have heard of the might of the kings.” You probably recognize exactly one word in that sentence: The first person plural pronoun “We.”
Maybe, if you look closer, you might realize that “þeodcyninga” has the word “king” hiding in it, and is probably the possessive form of the noun built on the stem “cyning,” which would have been pronounced with a hard “C” at the beginning.
This is Old English, but it might as well be a foreign language, right? Let’s take another little jump forward:
“siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at troye…” This is the opening line of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written around 1100 CE in a dialect of Middle English, and it’s probably a little easier to understand. In modern English, it reads, “After the siege and the assault of Troy…”
The funny looking letters that appear to be lowercase p’s in which the round part slipped down is actually the equivalent of the letters “th,” so you could interpret it as “sithen the sege,” and that second word reveals the reason for the biggest misunderstanding modern English speakers have about Middle English.
If you’ve ever seen something like “Ye Olde Shoppe,” that’s where this comes from. Instead of replacing the “þ” with “th,” early typesetters (who didn’t have the character) used a “y” instead, because to them it looked similar, and hence a non-existent word was born.
But back to the point, if you read that line out loud slowly, you can pretty much hear the modern English meaning in it. But look at how much the language had changed in just a century. Why? Simple. Beowulf and The Green Knight lived on opposite sides of the Norman Conquest.
This had a huge impact on the English language, infusing it with French. It’s a big part of the reason why we raise cows, pigs, and chickens, but eat beef, pork, and poultry. The farmers and cooks were lower-classes, so spoke English. The people who ate it were upper-class and rich, so spoke the courtly language, which was French.
Let’s jump ahead to 1392 and The Canterbury Tales, written in a later version of Middle English. I’ll bet that you can understand this one perfectly well: “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…”
It’s basically giving us the setting — in April, when the rains of that month end the drought in March that affected plants right down to their roots.
Set the time machine for 1469, and Thomas Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur, and look at this opening line: “HIt befel in the dayes of Vther pendragon when he was kynge of all Englond and so regned…”
I don’t even need to translate that, do I? Except maybe to point out that “Vther pendragon” is better know as “Uther Pendragon,” father of King Arthur.
One last jump of 140 years, and we get this line, for which I don’t even need to cite the author or source: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”
And so was modern English born.
Think about that one for a moment. If you were to jump into a time machine, you could only really safely go back a touch over 400 years, or maybe 550, and still be able to communicate with other English speakers — and that’s not even accounting for The Great Vowel Shift.
But spelling was not standardized in Shakespeare’s day. Here’s an example from Twelfth Night, aka Twelfe Night, or What You Will.
And if you want a really funny take on the language of the era by a very famous American author, check out Mark Twain’s hilarious short story 1601, which is naught more but an extended fart joke at Queen Elizabeth (I)’s expense.
Shakespeare would have loved it.
But after Shakespeare died in 1616, it was less than a century and a half before Samuel Johnson felt compelled to compile a dictionary of the English language. His initial attempt was to “fix” the language, but he soon admitted that this was folly.
Unfortunately, he didn’t really fix much, and it’s thanks to him that we have such weird (British) spellings as programme instead of program, tonne instead of ton, and all of those words with “ou” instead of just “o,” like “colour,” because he had this weird boner for maintaining the spellings of words from non-English sources, like French and Latin.
Meanwhile, Noah Webster was born three years after Johnson’s dictionary came out in 1755, and the United States as an independent nation were born by the time he was in his early 30s. He started working on his own dictionary with a goal toward simplifying spelling, and it came out in 1828 after a preliminary run at it in 1806.
Of course, Noah learned 26 languages in order to properly classify English words, and his dictionary was considered by many to outclass Johnson’s in every regard.
But this meant that there were still two English dictionaries with quite different spellings, and with authors who didn’t really simplify anything.
Sure, Webster gave us the short forms of program and ton, and the less nonsensical versions of “tyre” (tire), “kerb” (curb) and “gaol” (jail), but that was about it. He could have quashed such nonsense like the letter “C” (totally redundant as long as we have K and S around); really simplified vowel sounds by standardizing them as single letters and creating strong and defined diphthongs and, finally, getting rid of those stupid silent vowels, mostly “E”, that like to creep at the end of words after a consonant and change the pronunciation of the internal vowel.
So, again, come on. “Maik” is a much more sensible spelling than “make,” which would be two syllables in most other languages.
Speaking of “syllables,” what’s with those double letters? In Spanish, two L’s together makes sense because they are pronounced differently — “Lavas,” meaning you wash, is pronounced just like that: “lavas.” But “llaves,” meaning keys, is pronounced “ya-vays.”
Well, unless you’re from Argentina, in which case it becomes “sha-vays,” but the less said about that the better.
But it gets really weird because American English prefers things like “traveler,” while British English insists on “traveller.” Or what about “judgment” vs. “judgement?” (Hint: Sorry, Brits. You’re wrong. It does not need that second “e”. Webster was right.)
Ben Franklin had tried to simplify spelling before Webster, proposing a new alphabet, but that never caught on. Then again, some of the Founders actually proposed making the official language of the new nation Hebrew instead of English.
Or maybe they were actually going to go for German. Who knows?
In any case… English is the bastard child of Anglo-Saxon, Danish, French, Latin, German, Celtic, and (in latter days) borrowings from every country and culture we’ve managed to touch. As such, our spelling is a total hodgepodge and a hot mess, and it’s probably never going to get fixed.
On the other hand, a couple hundred years from now, everyone may speak Emoji, which would be a weird full circle back around from Egyptian hieroglyphics, where everyone knows what the little pictures mean even if they pronounce them in their own language.
Honestly, I’m not sure whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing.